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What are musical modes in music theory?

musical modes

The mode is one of the building blocks of Western music, and you might never have heard of it. While the basics of theory can seem intimidating to beginners, you probably know more about modes than you realize.

Signing up for Skoove’s free 7-day trial can help you get familiar with modes and the many pieces they appear in, from popular to classical. Like any musical skill, it’s one you’ll build up the more you exercise it, and Skoove is a great way to squeeze even five minutes of practice—or education on a new topic like modes—into your day.

So, what are modes in music? Let’s take a closer look.

What’s the difference between modes & scales?

A mode in music spans an octave, for example running from E4 to E5 on the keyboard. The difference lies in how far apart the notes are from one another within the octave.

If you have any kind of familiarity with piano scales, you may well be wondering what distinguishes a scale from a mode. Don’t they both have to do with classifying a procession of notes?

Technically, yes. But scales have to do with groups of notes, while modes tend to be broader and have to do with groups of scales. If we make a scientific comparison, scales are the atoms and modes are the molecules.

When we talk about modality, there is also the question of “major” versus “minor” modes and which scales they encompass. We’ll delve into detail about these shortly.

While all of these are obviously musical modes, many are also church modes, appearing specifically in sacred music. But they have a wider application in the secular sphere as well.

So just how many modes are there, anyway?

Glad you asked. The list of the seven widely recognized modes is as follows, all deriving their names from geographical areas of Ancient Greece. As mentioned, many are church modes.


The Dorian mode is especially famous because it organizes three species of scale: diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic. Each species is also referred to as a genus. Let’s think about it from the perspective of an octave, E to E.

  • The diatonic genus, if we were to examine it on a keyboard, is equivalent to playing all the white notes between two Es. The intervals are semitone-tone-tone—that is, E to F is a half-step, F to G a full step, G to A a full step, and so on.
  • The chromatic genus incorporates sharps and flats with a particular emphasis on leading tones. For example, in this case, D# is included because it naturally leads to E.
  • The enharmonic genus is the least accessible and sounds strangest to the ear. It is made up of semitones, with a major third (M3) between the third and fourth note and the seventh and eighth note of the octave.

Dorian mode


Also called common or Hypodorian, this mode contains a tonic triad (a chord whose root is also the root note of the octave) which is diminished, sounding dissonant to the ear. Specifically, this is because the distance between the root and the fifth of the chord is a diminished fifth. It’s also one of two modes—the other being the Lydian—to feature a tritone, or augmented fourth, above the tonic.

As a result, the mode was avoided in sacred music, since people believed the dissonant tritone to represent the devil. But by the early twentieth century, composers like Debussy and Rachmaninov came to embrace and use the mode.

Locrian mode


This mode is also known as major due to its close association with the major and diatonic scale. Many piano teaching programs begin with mastering the C major scale as its diatonic notes all occur on white keys. So if you have learned this, you have already learned the Ionian mode!

Ionian mode


The Phrygian mode divides its octave species into the same three categories as the Dorian:

  • Diatonic: Like other diatonic scales, the Phrygian is basically equivalent to playing all the white notes in the octave, for example from D to D.
  • Chromatic: This one begins with a minor-third (m3) jump, followed by two semitones, or half steps.
  • Enharmonic: This one begins with a major third (M3) and compensates for this larger interval by reducing the next two tones to quarter steps.

Phrygian mode


The Lydian mode has evolved noticeably from its ancient to its modern form. The former featured diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic variants as with its Dorian and Phrygian counterparts, while the latter is simplified.

Today, this mode is generally considered to comprise a major scale (think: your C major technique) with the fourth scale degree raised a half step. This results in an interval of an augmented fourth, or tritone. So, if we are in C, the fourth scale degree would be F# rather than F, creating a tritone.

Lydian mode


The Aeolian mode is synonymous with what we call the natural minor scale. This means that it is based on the sixth scale degree of its relative major scale. For instance, a C major scale would take A minor as its relative minor, and all the white notes on the keyboard from A to A would constitute a natural A minor scale.

A lot of popular songs written in a minor key make use of it, and if you ever want to try your hand at composition it’s a solid place to start.

Aeolian mode


Another name for the Mixolydian mode is the dominant scale. This is a major scale based on the fifth scale degree of whichever key you happen to be in. Taking C major as an example again, the Mixolydian would take the fifth, which is G—the dominant to C’s tonic—and build the scale from there. Mixolydian mode is bound up with chord progressions, especially between the tonic and dominant. Consequently, you can find it in most forms of popular music.

Mixolydian mode

How do I incorporate modes into my playing?

The most effective way to study musical modes, of course, is to have a keyboard in front of you. And if you don’t have access to a physical keyboard, that’s where a tool like virtual pianos comes into play (literally).

If you’ve ever tried to learn a classical piece or even one of your favorite pop songs on the piano, you already have more experience with musical modes than you likely think. But you can also start from a simpler place.

A virtual piano allows you to integrate the online mode feature to point out the components of each mode as you play a selection of songs. This will raise your awareness of how the mode is the foundation of melody and how to anticipate what each mode will do.

In addition, playing the modes themselves out on the keyboard and listening to the distance between notes in each mode will help tune your ear to their appearance in popular settings.

Before you know it, you’ll be able to identify a certain mode in a certain song yourself. You’ll have become an expert!

Musical modes exist in all genres and have featured prominently in compositions from Gregorian chant to High Renaissance polyphony to present-day pop. Learning about modes, their types, and their functions is but another example of the benefits of music education.

Don’t despair if you don’t get the hang of the nomenclature right away—it isn’t stopping you from making music!

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Author of this blog post:


Cecilia Gigliotti is a writer, musician, and photographer. Having spent her childhood singing and performing, she took an additional interest in the piano as a teenager and grows more passionate about it with each passing year. She lives in Berlin with a ukulele called Uke Skywalker: she can be found covering her favorite songs on YouTube (Lia Lio) and writing about music elsewhere on the Internet..

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